Matthew Savoca was bewildered. He had just received word of a large sum of money as a birthday gift from his best friend Jason Kats.
“When I got the news, I was shell-shocked. I didn’t know whether to cry, laugh, or smile,” Savoca said.
And yet, Savoca will never personally spend a dime of it. That’s because the birthday gift established a new endowment fund for undergraduate research at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“I always thought endowments were named for people who had passed away, people who had accomplished a lot in their lives,” said the 24-year-old Savoca.
Kats, who was Savoca’s college roommate and fraternity brother from the Cornell Class of 2010, established the new Matthew Savoca and Lillian Orrok Undergraduate Research Endowment for Ornithology this past February. Instead of a tribute to lifetime achievement, it’s an endowment to honor inspiration passed from generation to generation.
Lillian Orrok is Savoca’s grandmother, who kindled his passion for birds by taking him on childhood trips to Staten Island to witness bird banding. “It was a transformative experience to have this cardinal, this bird I’ve seen a million times in backyards, and actually hold it in my hand,” Savoca recalled.
Savoca’s fascination matured into a natural resources major at Cornell with a focus on ornithology. “I was always impressed with Matt’s dedication,” said Kats, a government and economics major at Cornell who now works for a Manhattan real estate company. “I remember in college, he’d wake up at 5:30 in the morning. It was dark outside, snowy. And he’d get dressed and grab his clipboard and go out into the cold to count birds, while I stayed warm in my bed.”
Today Savoca is pursuing a Ph.D. in ecology at the University of California, Davis, while studying Leach’s Storm-Petrel colonies in Nova Scotia.
“He’s such a selfless person, and he’s dedicating his life to this esoteric field of science, which is totally underfunded,” Kats said. “He’s just taught me so much about different ways to utilize resources. And I figured, well, there are better ways to utilize money than buying a house or a car.”
For Savoca, the shock still hasn’t worn off. But he’s settled on a smile for his reaction.
“I think about what my research internship meant to me as an undergrad,” Savoca said. “If I hadn’t got it, I would have spent my summers working in a dining hall rather than studying seabirds in Maine, and I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
As for the endowment’s benefactor, Kats hopes his gift will benefit the next generation of Matthew Savocas—students for whom a chance to do research could make all the difference.
“This endowment is all about paying it forward,” said Kats. “It’s about creating something that will last, in perpetuity, to address a critical need for funding for scientific research.”